Bo Ryan is on record as being less than a big fan of the Big Ten Tournament. He would much rather emphasize the regular conference season, featuring a 20-game schedule, with home and road games against everyone in the conference. The Badgers coach also wasn't born yesterday, and he fully understands the money and marketing factor of the conference tournament. Not that he really agrees with the concept, but he knows the drill.
I always smile when someone asks Bo whether it is a good thing to maybe get knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament early, so the players can rest, and then get ready for the NCAA Tournament. Those folks don't know Bo very well. If it is a game, and they are keeping score, you can rest assured that the Badgers will play to win. In his first eight years as the Badgers head coach, Ryan has led his team to the tournament title game four times, winning twice.
Regardless of one's opinion on the worthiness of the Big Ten Tourney, there have been some memorable moments involving the Badgers. The first such memory occurred in 1998, the first year of the event. Dick Bennett's Badgers labored through a tough season, but in the program's first-ever BTT appearance, Wisconsin pulled out a dramatic 52-51 victory against Penn State. Freshman Maurice Linton hit a jumper with 3.7 seconds to play to give the Badgers a nice moment in what was otherwise a difficult year.
Buzzer-beaters always are fun, and in 2005 Alando Tucker gave Badgers' fans one of those. With Wisconsin and Iowa tied at 56, Tucker raced up the floor, and as the clock struck zero, he banked home a 3-pointer to win the game.
Perhaps the Badgers' most thrilling game in the Big Ten Tourney came in the 2008 semifinal matchup with Michigan State. The previous day, I had a brief interview with Spartans star Drew Neitzel, and he talked about being more aggressive in this game. He was, scoring 26 points as he helped MSU build a 12-point lead in the second half.
Then Wisconsin started its comeback, getting to the free throw line while playing from behind. Four Michigan State players fouled out. Then in the final half-minute, Michael Flowers came through with a huge steal and lay-in to give the Badgers a two-point lead. In the closing seconds, the Spartans had one more shot to win it, but a Neitzel three-point try banged off the rim, and the Badgers held on to win 65-63. The next day they beat Illinois 61-48 to win the tournament championship.
This Friday, the Badgers and the Illini will square off one more time. It will be the sixth meeting between the schools in the BTT, and, of course, the second game between the two squads in five days. For Illinois, it is the latest in a line of "must win" games as Bruce Weber's group tries to make the NCAA field.
The Badgers will dance again, but who knows what seed they will have? I have never really been able to grasp what conference tournament success does in terms of improving one's seeding. An ESPN analyst told me that he believes by making it to the tournament title game, perhaps Wisconsin can move up to a three-seed. Who knows? All I know is in 2004, the Badgers finished second in the regular season, and then won the conference tournament, had an excellent RPI, and ended up seeded sixth. At least they were able to play in Milwaukee, but the seeding left many basketball observers confused.
All that aside, I am looking forward to this week's tournament. Indianapolis is a terrific host city (even though it certainly helps Indiana and Purdue to be so close to home), and Conseco Fieldhouse is a jewel of a facility. Personally, I enjoy visiting with my fellow broadcasters and other media types I have known through the years.
The way I see it, two things this week are predictable. The first item is that Bo Ryan will again talk about how he would rather not have a conference tournament. The second item is that he will have his team ready for Friday's game, and since they will be keeping score, he will try like heck to win another trophy.